Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was the democratic conscience of Nicaragua's nine-month-old governing junta, and as long as she served on the junta, it seemed likely that Sandinista Nicaragua would remain a pluralistic society.
But her resignation late last week raises doubts about that prospect.
Moreover, there is widespread suspicion that Mrs. Chamorro's decision to resign resulted from her developing perception that a democratic Nicaragua is unlikely under left-leaning Sandinista leadership.
She denied that her resignation had anything to do with politics, however, saying she is stepping down for health reasons. But Nicaragua observers say she has been angry for some time about the direction the Sandinista guerrillas-turned-governors are taking Nicaragua.
The Sandinista leadership, in the eyes of some Nicaraguans, is edging the country more and more toward a monolithic Marxist state. It is too early to say for sure. But the signs of such a direction are there, say these Nicaraguans.
For example, the recent visit to Moscow of top Sandinista leaders resulted in the signing of peace and friendship pacts with the Soviets. Cuban teachers and doctors are busy in Nicaragua.
The links with Moscow and Havana appear much firmer than those with Washington.
Mrs. Chamorro is known to be somewhat upset and disappointed with Washington's failure to come through with a modest aid program for Nicaragua. Many middle-class Nicaraguans viewed the aid measure -- some $75 million -- as absolutely necessary t keep Nicaraguan from going Marxist.
"Without that money, there is hope that Nicaragua will remain in the Western camp," commented a Nicaraguan industrialist close to Mrs. Chamorro. "If Washington shows no more interest in saving Nicaragua from socialism, why should we be expected to fight to do so?"
This view is said to reflect closely Mrs. Chamorro's own attitude. She belongs to Nicaragua's upper-middle-class -- a group that has a strong free-enterprise approach.
Mrs. Chamorro, the widow of assassinated newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal and a symbol of the democratic opposition to the ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was included in the five-member junta last June to give the junta a broad political base. Two of its members, Daniel Ortega Saavedra and Moises Hassan Morales, are self-professed Marxists; while a third, Sergio Ramirez Mercado, leans that way. Only Mrs. Chamorro and businessman Alfonso Robelo Callejas represented the non-Marxist opposition to dictator Somoza.
With Mrs. Chamorro's resignation Mr. Robelo is increasingly isolated. There have been rumors that he also intends to resign. But he denies them and, at least for now, apears ready to stay on.
Who will take Mrs. Chamorro's place remains to be seen. If it is another moderate, the dire forecasts accompanying her resignation may well prove inaccurate.
But the problems encountered by the non-Marxists elements in the Nicaraguan government remain. Mrs. Chamorro and Mr. Robelo, for example, are said to have argued at length with their fellow junta members, as well as various members of the nine-member Sandinista directorate, over the current direction of Nicaragua.
For one thing, they opposed inclusion of Sandinista popular-army leaders in the newly formed council of state, a 33-member legislative body. The Sandinista Army is the recreated guerrilla force that fought the Somoza dictatorship.
What worries many of those around Mrs. Chamorro is the steady usurpation of leadership of the government by the Sandinistas. The opposition to Somoza, they say, included a wide spectrum of Nicaraguan political, economic, and social interests in addition to the Sandinistas. Indeed, these interests were and are more numerous than the Sandinistas.
Non-Sandinista opponents of the now-deposed Somoza dictatorship had long feared this kind of usurpation. But the fear was nudged aside amid promises of a pluralistic political society and a mixed economy -- promises given by the Sandinistas when they came to power.
Now it appears a present possibility and may well explain Mrs. Chamorro's decision to step down.